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9/11, apartheid, and other metaphors that make people misunderstand Israel and Palestine

Terms commonly used to describe this conflict reflect outsiders’ preoccupations instead of astute political judgments.

A demonstrator outside the Israeli Embassy in London after the Hamas attacks.Carl Court/Getty

Almost as soon as news of Hamas’s savage Oct. 7 attacks on Israel emerged, the metaphors began to fly, especially in the American press. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote that the massacres were “being called Israel’s Sept. 11, and that’s a fair comparison.” In The Wall Street Journal, Ashley Rindsberg rejected the Sept. 11 paradigm but compared Israel’s (probable) ground invasion of Gaza to the British evacuation of Dunkirk during World War II, and Hamas’s ideology to Hitler’s. Jeff Jacoby, writing in this newspaper, made the analogy of Pearl Harbor. In Politico, Daniel C. Thomas suggested that the attacks might be the equivalent, for Israel, of the Vietnam War’s Tet Offensive.

Every event in history has precedents. The student of history, the political analyst, and the ordinary citizen seeking to understood the world, and especially its most bewildering catastrophes, strive to make connections between present and past. That makes sense, because no event, including the most heinous, is absolutely unique. The German genocide of the Jews, the Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia, and the Rwandan genocide of Hutu against Tutsi share certain similarities. But Germany in the 1930 and ’40s, Cambodia in the 1970s, and Rwanda in 1994 were awfully different from each other — and still are. To compare them may obscure as much as it clarifies.

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When it comes to the Oct. 7 massacres and their effects on Israel, metaphors will in all likelihood lead people astray. Indeed, it is precisely because the assault was so astonishing, so bizarre, that it is difficult to comprehend — both for those of us on the outside and, even more, for traumatized Israelis. Metaphors seek to “contain” the event within antecedents and, therefore, they evade how unprecedented it was: how different, rather than how similar, to whatever came before.

The 9/11 comparison is the most frequent and revealing. It is also, when used by American journalists, self-serving: an attempt to conflate our vast, sprawling, powerful country of 330 million people, with one of the world’s largest armies, to that of a minuscule nation — population 9 million — surrounded by enemies. Our northern neighbor is Canada; Israel’s are Lebanon, where Hezbollah reigns, and Syria, one of the world’s grimmest, most homicidal dictatorships. Most Americans don’t live with a sense of precarity when it comes to hostile neighbors; most Israelis do.

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When Al-Qaeda attacked the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, very few Americans — I include myself in this ignorant mass — had any idea as to who the group was, where it was located, and what it stood for. True, in 1996, Osama bin Laden had declared war on the United States — but do you know anyone who actually read his “Declaration of Jihad”? True, in 1998, the group bombed our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, killing hundreds of African workers and wounding thousands — but how many Americans cared? True, in 2000, the terrorists destroyed the USS Cole, killing 17 sailors. But this was, sad to say, a trauma for their families, not the nation.

Hamas’s relationship to Israel couldn’t be more different. They are the most intimate of foes — which is why, unlike Americans in the post-9/11 days, no Israeli asks, “Why do they hate us?” The terror group and the state have a long and dreadful history. Israelis are deeply scarred by Hamas’s waves of suicide bombers, which introduced a grotesque new form of terror into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and by its repeated missile barrages. Gazans have been bombed in four mini-wars with Israel since the group gained control of the strip in 2007. On Oct. 7, there wasn’t a person in Israel who wondered who Hamas is or what it stands for.

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Israel is, politically, a highly contentious society; in the nine months preceding the attacks, hundreds of thousands protested the stridently right-wing government of Benjamin Netanyahu (which will probably fall after the war ends). But it is also deeply collective and close-knit. Virtually all Jewish Israelis (other than most of the ultra-Orthodox), including women, serve in the armed forces; in the United States, the figure is less than half of one percent. Three hundred and sixty thousand reservists — 4 percent of Israel’s population — have been called up. And though I lived in New York City on Sept. 11, 2001, and still do, I knew no one who was killed in the attack. In fact, the overwhelming majority of Americans had no direct connection to the victims. The opposite is true in Israel. Adam Fisher, who works at an investment firm, told The New York Times, “Every day, we hear about someone else we know whose child was murdered or severely injured or is missing.”

The Pearl Harbor metaphor also won’t illuminate much. Hamas, despite its fury, doesn’t resemble the Imperial Japanese Army. Its ally was Nazi Germany; Hamas’s main supporters are Hezbollah and Iran. Pearl Harbor led the United States to join its allies in a worldwide war.

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Bad comparisons lead to bad politics

It’s no surprise that the Hamas attacks have yielded so many metaphors. From the moment Israel was founded (and even before), the country, and the conflicts in which it is mired, have been viewed as symbols rather than in their particularity. The Israeli-American writer Joel Schalit observed “how effortlessly conversation about Israel can slide from the literal to the figurative”; he added that “both its friends and enemies” treat the country “as a trope.”

This was especially true of some European intellectuals who had witnessed, and were shattered by, the rise of fascism and, then, the Holocaust. Visiting Jerusalem in 1961 to cover the trial of the Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, Hannah Arendt heard echoes of her native Germany in the new Jewish state. “Everything is organized by a police force that gives me the creeps,” she complained. “They would obey any order.”

In the 1960s, the most radical factions of the German New Left, perhaps driven mad by their parents’ crimes, insisted that Israelis were the new Nazis (and, as such, merited terrorist attacks). Today, the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement contends that Israel replicates apartheid South Africa. But the utter failure of the movement to either isolate Israel or weaken its West Bank occupation suggests that the analogy is deeply flawed. More generally, Israel — a country founded and inhabited by some of the poorest and most persecuted refugees on Earth — has been, and is, viewed as ground zero of “imperialism” and “settler-colonialism.”

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A demonstrator comparing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Adolf Hitler was among the thousands who marched in support of the Palestinians in Los Angeles on Oct. 14. DAVID SWANSON/AFP via Getty Images

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is increasingly seen by some American progressives as a subset of our domestic racial justice movements, with the Palestinians as “people of color” and Israelis as “white.” But these categories have little resonance in the Middle East, where people define themselves by nationality, ethnicity, and religion. The paradigm is especially strange since approximately half of Israelis trace their lineage to the various Arab countries that expelled them. Hamas’s hatred of Israelis and the Israeli ultra-right’s hatred of Palestinians are frightfully real. But they have nothing to do with color or race. That, too, is a projection of American preoccupations and passions. Metaphors are good for poetry but bad for politics: It’s hard to make wise political judgments if you mistake one thing for another.

Such projections have an ancient pedigree. The historian David Nirenberg has argued that, for several millennia before the modern State of Israel existed, Jews and Judaism were abstract concepts through which peoples from disparate cultures attempted to explain the world — and, in particular, what was wrong with it — to themselves. “Across several thousand years, myriad lands, and many different spheres of human activity, people have used ideas about Jews and Judaism to fashion the tools with which they construct the reality of their world,” he wrote. What was true for so many centuries before 1948 has been equally true since.

Which brings us back to the onslaught of Oct. 7. It isn’t Sept. 11, or Pearl Harbor, or any other disaster. Without divorcing it from history, it should be understood, in its scope and its cruelty, as itself. After 9/11, we Americans were told, “Everything has changed.” But in truth, daily life for millions continued much as before. In Israel, there isn’t a single person for whom that is, or will be, true.

Susie Linfield is a professor of journalism at New York University and author of “The Lions’ Den: Zionism and the Left from Hannah Arendt to Noam Chomsky.”